Romancing The Home

Romancing The Home
Does art imitate life? Are artists political? Is art gendered? Does it have a voice that transcends physical boundaries? Does it have a feminist angle? These are some of the questions that raced through my mind as I navigated my way across the ArtChowk Gallery to view Home Ground — a collection of work by four South Asian women artists curated by Noor Ahmed in Karachi. The four artists are also the founding members of the Neulinge Collective, which was formed in 2019 as an initiative to increase the representation of ‘women of colour’ in contemporary art.

The Neulinge Collective consists of artists from Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India who have come together to debate, discuss and highlight issues that relate to global politics and its impact on women of colour. Why is the Collective important? Rather than being pigeonholed and labeled as ‘brown art’, or ‘art representing a minority,’ these four artists got together to give their individual identity a voice. An identity which underlines their sense of belonging and is firmly rooted in their South Asian origins, beyond the colour of their skin.

The exhibit was a fruit of labour of intense rounds of discussions around the theme of home. Both the tangible aspect of what we call ‘home’ and the notion that resides in our head in the form of memories, attachments, connections and rituals when we are placed physically away from it. More or less, Pakistanis, Indians and Sri Lankans share a common regional history which has shaped the ideas and thoughts of these artists.

The well- lit, expansive space at ArtChowk Gallery was strategically utilised. It was apt to devote/dedicate a corner to ‘Juloos’ by Marium M Habib, given that the exhibition was being held in the month of Moharram. Young Marium is a visual artist from Karachi with a degree in fine art from London. She uses her work to comment on the social, cultural and political environment in which she resides. Her technique is ‘confessional’ and she specialises in creating life-like images after first taking their photos. The brush-stroked details of her piece succeeds in making the viewer feel like a participant at a ‘juloos.’ One is emotionally drawn to the ritual of the procession and connects instantly with the atmosphere. It seems there are some memories from Marium’s childhood days that have surfaced in her work, both as a young onlooker of processions and participant.

Moving to the other end of the room are larger-than-life, amorphous pieces placed at ninety degrees angle to each other, resembling colourful doodles on an army canvas tent by Chudamani Clowes. A Colombo-born, London-based artist, her interest in ‘post-colonialism,’ ‘neo-imperialism’ and the residual impact of a now bygone Empire on migrants and immigration are evident in her body of work.

Marium M. Habib - 'Juloos' - Chalk Pastel on Paper - 59 x 96 inches - 2021

She uses her art to tap into her ancestral culture to perhaps understand and question her identity. Or maybe to bolster and expand it by adding a new dimension to it. Her work is inspired by an unexpected discovery of an aerogramme sent by her mother, 30 years ago, a personal and a priceless memento. Aerogrammes were a cost-effective way to communicate across borders, before the now ubiquitous email.

Aerogrammes have been around for over 200 years and were an essential mode of communication used by the military. Chudamani’s long career as a marine biologist and her strong affinity to corals to make statements about ecological issues and sustainability are rather interesting. Its a mixture of science and a romance with a past that has, ironically, been eroded by science. It’s almost as if Chudamani has attempted to create a patchwork of memories knitted across the intertwining political histories of the two countries (Sri Lanka and the UK) that she calls home. Home is where the memories are. Maybe she is coming to terms with the idea that there can be more than one place that one can call home?

The adjacent room had a large piece of installation art placed right in the centre hanging from the ceiling and sprawled onto the floor. Again very colourful, organic and difficult to ignore. One could walk all around it and interact with it. At first, it gave the impression of a woven carpet. Closer interactions with it gave a feel of a tree trunk with overgrown roots or even an umbilical cord still attached to the mother’s body post-birth, denoting displacement while still connected to one’s roots.

This was made by Divya Sharma, a South Indian multi-disciplinary artist, living in London, using her work to highlight the ‘marginalised, under-represented and the overlooked,’ particularly women and migrant communities.

While living in India, studying to become an artist was unheard of. Her world opened up to the struggles of the diaspora as she read and related to the women’s movements of the 1960s and 1970s. She pursued art degrees in London. Navigating various homes while being away from the ‘original home,’ made her realise she had learned more about western culture, than her own. This led her to learn her mother tongue, the Tamil language, and work closely with the Tamil community from South India and Sri Lanka in the UK.

The three windows of the gallery’s room were adorned by Maryam Hina Hasnain’s work which, if viewed from a distance, gave the impression of stained-glass windows or of impressions on glass. A closer look revealed that these installations were ink and bleach on tracing paper. Maryam’s work of ‘textile interventions’ uses organic materials found in turmeric, saffron and pomegranate.

The installations were exactly the same size as the windows and the interplay of the natural light (at different times of the day) with the pigments on the installations were rather mesmerising. Being a multidisciplinary artist, now stationed in Karachi, Maryam acquired her skill in Kuala Lumpur and London and revolves around themes of trade and migration.

Her work delves on the idea that mobility is easier for objects than individuals. Her work of fusing the physical and the digital took on a whole new meaning after her aunt lost her eyesight and used sound to identify the different shades of colour.

A serene painting placed in the corner, that of an actual coastal area in Balochistan, again depicts the identity one associates with the land of birth and the otherness one feels living elsewhere. Marium M. Habib captures well this feeling that haunts as well as intrigues all immigrants.

I finish writing this review at a time when an explosive women’s movement (Zan, Zindagi and Azadi) in Iran is gaining momentum. I feel there could be no better time for collectives like the Neulinge Collective to go places, raise voices and make borders amorphous.